Welcome to Spybrary, a podcast for spy book enthusiasts. In episode 215, I had the pleasure of hosting special guest Oliver Webb Carter, a historian and the co-founder of Aspects of History, a magazine, podcast, and website dedicated to history and historical fiction. Dead Drop 5 is our espionage version of Desert Island Discs, except in our case, the guest is asked which five favourite spy novels he/she wants stashed in a dead drop during an undercover mission behind the Iron Curtain.
Introducing Oliver Webb Carter
Oliver Webb Carter is not just a historian but also a passionate advocate for connecting readers with history authors and helping authors get the word out about their work. His platform, Aspects of History, is a treasure trove of articles, interviews, short stories, and book reviews. I recently enjoyed an interview with Michael Smith, author of “The Real Special Relationship,” which was a fascinating and in-depth discussion.
A Dive into Spy Fiction From Yesteryear
Our conversation took a turn towards the world of spy books, a topic that often leads me to buy more books than I planned. Oliver, keeping the librarians in mind, recommended Ashenden by Somerset Maugham. This collection of stories set during World War I captures the farcical nature of espionage and the mistakes that can occur in the field.
Exploring the Cold War Era
We then moved on to discuss A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre, a non-fiction book that provides a fascinating account of Kim Philby, a member of the Cambridge spy ring. The intriguing story of Philby and his ability to deceive others was a captivating topic. We even touched on a recording of Philby briefing Stasi agents in East Germany, where he advises them to deny everything if captured.
The Human Side of Espionage
Our conversation took a personal turn when we discussed the book A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, which Oliver finds relatable due to its exploration of the human condition. We also discussed le Carré's novel “A Small Town in Germany” and Oliver's personal connection to le Carré through his father, who taught le Carré at Eton and corresponded with him about a detail that ended up in one of his novels.
The Underreported World of Northern Ireland
Oliver recommended a novel set in Northern Ireland called The Ultras by Owen McNamee. This novel delves into the horrors of the Troubles and explores the world of espionage and betrayal. We also discussed the historical context of the novel, set in the late 70s, during a time of increased sectarian violence and collusion between paramilitary groups.
The Farcical Side of Espionage
Our discussion rounded off with Oliver's final book recommendation, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. This novel captures the farcical side of espionage, highlighting how human beings involved in espionage often exaggerate or even make things up.
The Risks and Counterproductivity of Spy Agencies
We also touched on the risks and counterproductivity of spy agencies, using the example of Kim Philby. We questioned whether having a spy agency actually increases the risk rather than mitigating it.
The Vibrant Spy Community
Oliver expressed his appreciation for different opinions within the Spybrary community, emphasizing that it makes the community vibrant. He mentioned that sometimes people may discover a book by an author they previously disliked and end up enjoying it, highlighting the beauty of exploring different perspectives.
Discovering Aspects of History
For those interested in learning more about Aspects of History, you can find the podcast on various platforms such as Spotify, Google, and Apple. They also offer subscriptions to their online magazine on their website. The magazine features contributions from renowned historians such as Ben Macintyre, Saul David, Helen Fry, Sir Max Hastings, Giles Milton and many more. For what it's worth, I am a paying subscriber, meaning that Aspects of History is Spybrary Approved!
The Importance of History in Storytelling
As we wrapped up our conversation, I encouraged budding writers to read spy history books, citing Mick Smith's latest book The Real Special Relationship as an example of a source that can inspire storytelling. Studying history can provide limitless story ideas, and I look forward to exploring more of these in future episodes of the Spybrary Podcast.
Join us on the Spy Book Podcast, Spybrary, and discover the thrilling world of spy books in our exclusive series, ‘Dead Drop 5'.
Spy Books and Dead Drops…what is this series exactly?
This riveting series is a crowd favorite, but be warned, your bank balance may take a hit based on these spy book recommendations. In these episodes, our brave podcast guests are dispatched on a clandestine mission behind the Iron Curtain, where danger lurks at every shadowy corner.
But fear not, they won't embark on this perilous journey unequipped.
Our intrepid agents can request five spy novels to be stashed in the East Berlin dead drop.
But that's not all.
Beyond these spy books, our guests are granted a selection of diverse items, each carefully curated to make their stay in East Berlin more manageable, perhaps even a touch more comfortable.
Join host Shane Whaley as he interviews David Clark about his upcoming mission to East Berlin and the five books he would like to take.
Get ready to dive into ‘Dead Drop 5', only on Spybrary, but be warned this series could seriously damage your bank account!
The Best Spy Book Recommendations: Discover the Top 5 Favorites of Oliver Webb-Carter
- Ashenden by Somerset Maugham
- A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
- A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
- The Ultras by Owen McNamee
- Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene
The Spybrary Online Community – by spy book fans for spy fans.
Check out the previous guests of our Dead Drop 5 spy book podcast episodes.